The Old New Spirit

In 1942, Walt Disney released a patriotic video entitled, “The New Spirit.”  The short piece features Donald Duck standing before a large radio, whose dials for eyes and mouth-like speaker give it an anthropomorphic quality. 

“Are you a patriotic American, eager to do your part?” the radio asks in a confident and slightly stern tone.  Donald Duck nods energetically.  “Then there’s something important you can do.  You won’t get a medal for doing it.  It may mean a sacrifice on your part.  But it will be of vital help to your country in this hour of need.”  Donald Duck, chomping at the bit, begs to let him know what “it” is.  The answer: “Your income tax.”

Disney’s iconic cartoon figure is confused. 

“It’s your privilege, not just your duty,” the radio explains, adding, “It’s your privilege to help your government by paying your tax, and paying it promptly.”  The pitch fails to convince.  Donald Duck wants a higher calling, something nobler.  He’s crestfallen.  The radio sets him straight.  “Your country is at war.  Your country needs taxes for guns, taxes for ships, taxes for democracy.  Taxes to beat the Axis.”

Won over by the simple logic, Donald Duck tears out of the room to get started on his return.  The radio praises his initiative.  “The sooner you get your taxes in, the sooner they’ll get to work,” it says.  “For it’s your taxes, my taxes, our taxes that run the factories” making armaments that will defeat the enemy.

The film goes on to lay out how to complete a simplified tax form before closing with a punch.  As animated planes fly in formation below a Star Spangled Banner-colored sky, the narration preaches over a rousing chorus: “This is our fight.  The fight for freedom—freedom of speech, of worship; freedom from want and fear.  Taxes will keep democracy on the march!”

The short movie is a masterpiece of propaganda.  Though shamelessly jingoistic, it is also stirring.  Perhaps that’s because it rings true.  The fight against fascism was moral and just.  And hard.  Triumph required sacrifice.  Millions of Americans enlisted and hundreds of thousands died in Europe, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere.  Those on the home front endured hardship, too.  Everyday goods like butter, sugar, and gasoline were rationed.  New cars couldn’t be had.  And yes, people paid their taxes to bury the Axis; the top marginal rate reached 94 percent in 1944.

Anteing up to Uncle Sam needn’t be painful.  Oliver Wendell Holmes even claimed he liked paying taxes.  “With them I buy civilization,” he said.  Many do not make the same connection, which his why we honor the World War II generation, the “greatest,” for their sense of common purpose, their “new sprit.”

Times change, and so do values.  Sacrifice is now honored in the abstract.  Politicians talk of putting “country first,” but that’s just an empty slogan, even though we, too, are at war.  To suggest, say, “taxes to terminate the terrorists” would be sheer lunacy.  Our discourse favors free lunches.  Indeed, the nation faces a new “red menace,” as one possible presidential candidate characterized our fiscal woes, yet nobody suggests raising taxes.  On the contrary, further tax cuts are promised at a time when federal revenues (mostly from taxes) are at the lowest levels in sixty years and vital services are being slashed.

The middle class has an alibi for their frugality.  Median incomes have been stagnant for decades while, over the same period, the cost of healthcare and education have soared.  There’s little blood to extract from that stone.  The rich are another story.  Top marginal rates have dropped dramatically while at the same time the super wealthy soaked up nearly all the country’s income gains. 

Corporations are also sitting pretty.  As David Leonhardt of the New York Times recently reported, the federal corporate tax rate is 35 percent, but many companies, exploiting loopholes, actually pay a much lower percentage.  Over the past five years, the Carnival Corporation (cruise lines) coughed up just 1.1 percent in total taxes (state and local) on its $13.3 billion in profits.  Boeing paid slightly more during the same period, 4.4 percent.

Are America’s richest individuals and corporations unpatriotic?  Oftentimes, yes.  You might say they don’t believe in “civilization.”  But then, the new new spirit is not like the old new spirit.  Many of the society’s most fortunate have forgotten that, trite as it may sound, taxes really do keep democracy on the march.  The point should be self-evident.  Even a cartoon duck gets it.  

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